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How the Finches Stole My Heart : My First Brush With To Kill a Mockingbird

Taylor Grieshober

Public high school failed me in more ways than one. This is evident to me now, as I have just finished my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird at 21 years old. It makes me wonder how many great books I’ve pushed aside, saying I’ll read them eventually. I’ve become sort of repulsed by hype, so when it approaches me I shun it, and assume that the praise isn’t warranted. But the Minneapolis Tribune was dead on when they said of this 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner “The reader will find an immense satisfaction…and a desire, on finishing it, to start again on page one.” I have a feeling this book will continue to beckon me and affect me year after year.

If you too have been robbed of your Harper Lee experience, let me preface this tribute with a brief synopsis. Through the eyes of our young heroin, Scout Finch, we enter the quiet fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama.  It is the depression. The only difference between the poor and the destitute is that the poor are able to eat on a regular basis. But Scout and her older brother Jem don’t seem to notice.  At the onset of the novel, they’re too busy being kids. Scout and Jem, along with their trusty ally Dill spend their summers attempting to solve the mystery of their allusive neighbor, Boo Radley. Boo is the town recluse and the kids spend much of their time trying to coax him out of his house. Meanwhile Scout’s father, attorney Atticus Finch, has been appointed to represent a black man named Tom Robinson, who has been accused of raping a white girl who lives with her family on the outskirts of town. It is the Deep South and racial tensions are high. Many of the townspeople openly oppose Atticus’s defense of Tom, and some threaten both he and his children. It all culminates in a chilling court trial, where logic and justice are pitted against racism and ignorance.


My relationship to this masterpiece is complicated. Initially, I want to be these characters. I want to be as tough and bold as Scout Finch. At one point in the story, some important town figures come to the jail to lynch Tom before the hearing. Atticus is guarding the jail cell and the men are about to jump him when little Scout intervenes. She immediately recognizes one of the men as Walter Cunningham’s  father. Walter is a friend of Scout’s from school, so she begins by complimenting Mr. Cunningham on his son. “He’s a good boy,” she says. “A real nice boy. We brought him home for dinner one time. Maybe he told you about me, I beat him up one time but he was real nice about it. Tell him hey for me, won’t you?” The men can’t be violent when confronted with this little girl and her wonderful wit. Scout reminds them of their humanity, and the men shuffle away, silently. Only Mr. Cunningham says something. He turns to Scout and replies, “I’ll tell him you said hey, little lady.”

I’d like to think I understand the world the way Atticus Finch does, but I don’t kid myself. I’ve never known a person, fictional or otherwise, to articulate the realities of the world half as well as Atticus. It’s obvious why he’s an icon for lawyers. He is the supreme example of justice. He is as close to moral perfection as anyone could hope to get. Not only do I aspire to this kind of keen awareness now, but also hope I can be this kind of parent. Atticus is a wonderful model for fathers and mothers alike. He respects his children. He never condescends to them and is constantly teaching Scout and Jem, even when the school system fails to challenge them. He encourages questions and when faced with controversial inquiries, Atticus is honest with his children. When Scout asks him what rape means, Attcius doesn’t blink an eye and defines it for her. The first place where I can remember breaking into sobs (I cried probably a handful of times) was when Scout is upset because her classmates, and many community members, are referring to her dad as a “nigger lover.” Jem and Scout bare the burden of their father’s choice to stand apart from the town on a daily basis. Scout questions her dad head on and asks if the label is true. Atticus calms her down with a beautiful response: “I certainly am. I do my best to love everybody…I’m hard put, sometimes-baby, it’s never an insult to be called what someone thinks is a bad name. It just shows you how poor that person is, it doesn’t hurt you.”

Aside from wanting to embody these characters, I can’t shake the feeling that I already know every character. I can hear my grandmother’s busybody yapping in the voice of the main town gossip, Stephanie Crawford. The wise musings of Maudie Atkinson resemble those fed to me by my fifth grade teacher. From what my mom has told me of her rough and tumble tomboy upbringing in our rural hometown, she was like Scout. And my dad, a retired lawyer himself holds the same relentless hope for humanity as Atticus.

But if this were the case, why was I so afraid to leave them, to leave these characters who seem to have been with me all my life? This is especially true of Scout. I have never known such a precocious and compassionate young narrator. She’s smart as a whip, tough as nails and shows us the truly timeless experience of being a kid, and more importantly, what it means to grow up. Atticus gets a lot of credit for being the moral hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, but Scout is just as aware of the social hypocrisy and politics of her town. The fact that she’s not conscious of her awareness makes her all the more poignant of a narrator.  It’s as if she’s a porthole into a world that is at once historically accurate and that remains relevant in our current victim-blaming culture. As a friend pointed out to me, the trial scene sounds a lot like modern day rape trials, with the victim in the same hot seat as Tom (“of course you raped her because you’re black and she’s white” sounds just as ridiculous as “well you were asking for it. You shouldn’t have worn that mini skirt!”)

As a writer, I dream of being able to turn a sentence like Lee. Her prose, her language, and her plot development are all flawless I am disgusted with her genius and in complete awe of it. I knew going into this reading that this is Lee’s only book. And now, having finished it, I understand why. She has said what takes most writers a lifetime to say in her first and only go at it. I’d quit too if it was clear I’d never top myself.

To Kill a Mockingbird is just one of those rare, once in a lifetime books. I mourned each passing page. Before I knew what was what, the bulk of the story was in my left hand and the final words fell into my right. I became desperate, hoping for an epilogue or afterword, but there was nothing. A part of me felt like my life was ending and I understood the warning from the Minneapolis Tribune all to well. It is a hypnotically cyclical book. And I find comfort knowing I can always begin again.

My copy, an original printed in 1962, rests on my nightstand. It looks as though I’ve read it several times. The margins are well marked. There’s scarcely a page without an underlined passage and the corners are creased. The binding is worn. Page one is loose. So this is love.

Taylor Grieshober is a senior writing student at Carlow University. Most days and evenings she is chained to her desk with her nose in one of many school books. When she’s not doing that, she’s probably at 80’s night. Taylor can’t wait to graduate in the spring.

Illustration courtesy Dan Wyke © 2009, 2010

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